Scientists announced Sunday they may have successfully cured a child of HIV, a huge step forward in the effort to help children around the world from inheriting the virus.
It started two and a half years ago when doctors discovered a mother in rural Mississippi was HIV-positive during labor. Usually, intensive HIV treatments don’t start until after a child is confirmed positive, but in this case, the doctor decided not to wait. Instead, she put the baby on three drugs within 30 hours of birth.
"I just felt like this baby was at higher-than-normal risk, and deserved our best shot," explained Dr. Hannah Gay, a pediatric HIV specialist at the University of Mississippi.
Experts say that swift and strong remedy killed the virus before it could create “hideouts” in the child’s immune system. Once hideouts form, a person who is HIV-positive can’t stop taking their medication. If they do, the virus releases again from these secret cellular pockets.
So when the little girl returned after a year without medication, and healthy, doctors knew they had reached a medical milestone. She underwent further testing and even though her blood shows traces of the virus, it isn’t able to replicate or invade other cells. Doctors declared the child “functionally cured,” meaning the virus is in long-term remission.
"You could call this about as close to a cure, if not a cure, that we've seen," Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health told the Associated Press. Doctors emphasize it isn’t a 100 percent guarantee, but they’re hoping to research how to duplicate this process for children around the world.
In 2011, about 300,000 children were born with HIV, most of them in poor countries where most of the women who are HIV positive cannot access treatment to prevent passing the virus to their children. The cure wouldn’t be able to help individuals who contract HIV as adults or adolescents.
"We can't promise to cure babies who are infected,” Gay said. “We can promise to prevent the vast majority of transmissions if the moms are tested during every pregnancy."
If the child remains healthy, it would be only the second time a person has been cured of HIV. The other person, Timothy Ray Brown, underwent a very risky bone marrow transplant from a special donor who is naturally resistant to HIV. Brown has not needed HIV medications during the five years since that transplant.